Whitworth College Spring 2005 Convocation Address
Feb. 8, 2005
For some reason, when I heard we would be celebrating 100 years of our student newspaper, the opening words of the Beatles' A Day in the Life popped into my head, "I read the news today, oh boy." While I was busy graduating from high school, the Beatles were busy selling Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The world was creaking back then. In America, the Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty had only a few years under their belts, and they were doing a better job of exposing injustices than eradicating them. In Southeast Asia, the war in Vietnam was escalating, as were the protests that questioned why we were there in the first place. Times were tough. But frankly, I'm pretty sure our planet boasted better health back then than it does now. When "I read the news today" in 1967, there didn't seem to be the bombings, beheadings, tsunamis and plagues that fill today's papers. There's a lot of bad news out there. Thursday we'll hear about genocide in the Sudan. Last week I spoke with a woman who reported that on a recent visit to Malawi, Africa, she had a difficult time finding anyone between the ages of 17 and 45. What she did find were roadside stands selling caskets. AIDS has devoured entire generations.
So, in this world of hurt it seems a bit profane to be celebrating The Whitworthian, Sang Lee, and Jonathan Edwards. How in the world do they matter? Good question -- how in the world? Actually, it is in relation to the world that they matter most. The Whitworthian provides a student perspective on the local and domestic parts of our world. Sang Lee, as you have just heard, builds bridges in the international world through research, writing, teaching, and the enablement of U.S.-Korea academic exchanges. Now, if you thing domestically, in terms of The Whitworthian, and if you think globally, in terms of Sang Lee, you're probably inclined to think spiritually in terms of Jonathan Edwards. As Dean Reid mentioned, if there is one phrase that we connect with Jonathan Edwards, it is that famous sermon title, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." And that is unfortunate. I suppose it's a better title than "Hell Is In Your Future," but not a lot better. America knows Edwards through that one 300- year-old sermon title.
But what most of us do not know about Jonathan Edwards is that he cared not only for spiritual matters, but he cared passionately for this world. And because of that he was a huge newspaper reader. No doubt he would have subscribed to The Whitworthian, had it been around. He was an expert on current events. Jonathan Edwards, like John Calvin, John Knox and the other Reformers who shaped our Presbyterian heritage, believed that God still loves this world and longs to redeem all of creation, not just souls. The history of Whitworth College bears a clear Reformed stamp, but we have also benefited from evangelical influences. As you may know, some evangelical churches emphasize passages of Scripture that encourage us to flee the world. To them, God seems to be saying, "The world is a fallen mess; we need to steer clear of its contamination and relate to it primarily for the purpose of spiritual redemption." Reformers, however, hold up the first chapter of John's gospel and hear God saying, "Yes, the world is a fallen mess, but I created it, I sent my son to die for it, and I want it back!" Probably the best summary of how Presbyterians and other Reformed denominations see the world is found in the famous words of Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch reformer speaking at an opening convocation about 125 years ago: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry 'Mine!'"
Now, this is a good time to remember the words of that great Jewish theologian Tevye, who in Fiddler on the Roof listened to one side of an argument and responded, "You know, I think you're right," and then, hearing the other side, said, "You know, you're right too. You're both right." And elements of the Evangelical and Reformed emphases are both right, and we benefit from both. But our Presbyterian tradition, The Whitworthian, Sang Lee and Jonathan Edwards all have accepted Christ's call to participate in the grand and redemptive task of reclaiming his creation.
Now, to assist me in leaving you with a strategy for doing this great work, I have to bring in one more character. You might remember that at Fall Convocation in 2002, I talked about how Raphael painted himself into his famous School of Athens painting. As I mentioned, Renaissance painters often did that. Actually, this is why I consider myself a Renaissance man. In my family, I am famous for holding a camera at arm's length and shooting myself right into the picture. In fact, through this form of advanced photography, I discovered truth in that old saying, "Behind every good man is a woman rolling her eyes." The picture didn't lie. Our eyes told the story. My eyes said love and pride. Bonnie's eyes said, "I can't believe I married this nut."
If you know me, you know I love Renaissance art. I act like I know a lot about it, but I don't really. And I know even less about Impressionism, because I'm not all that wild about it. I've gone to the Monet and Degas exhibits, but I get a little tired of hay bales and dancing girls and pastels. To a dumb amateur like me, Impressionism is Art Lite compared to the rich colors, themes and passions of the great Renaissance masters. For this I apologize to the art department, to France and to knowledgeable artists everywhere.
Last week Bonnie and I were in Washington, D.C., and we had a chance to visit the National Gallery of Art. I've gone there annually for the past 19 years, because it is my favorite art collection, and right now it's hosting an exhibit of the late religious portraits of one of my favorite artists -- Rembrandt. People who know even less than I do about art know that this Dutch master has no peer when it comes to his use of light on dark and suffuse shadows. In his late religious paintings, it seemed the contrasts were even sharper than in his earlier works -- more darkness, brighter light.
It is Rembrandt's use of light that helps me understand my role, our role, in staking Christ's claim of "Mine!" in every corner of this fallen world. Obviously, I'm not the first person inspired by Rembrandt to see life differently. Henry Nouwen wrote an entire book on experiencing Rembrandt's painting of the Prodigal Son. But what struck me last Wednesday were not only the subjects of Rembrandt's portraits. (And, yes, there was Rembrandt as the face of the Apostle Paul.) But it was the style.
For my last birthday, our daughter Brenna gave me a book of poems by Marilyn McEntyre on Rembrandt's religious paintings entitled Drawn to the Light. And that is exactly what you experience standing before his portraits. You are drawn to the light. It shines so brightly against dark interiors that your eyes move instantly away from the shadows. The contrast animates the light.
Students, this is the strategy. We must shine brightly against the darkness of our world. Surrounding ourselves with light may provide safety, but we lose our illuminating influence. A sack lunch on Saturday night in your room with your friends is no big deal. But a sack lunch in a room at the Otis Hotel, being passed by a Whitworth En Christo student to a homeless person bursts with light. A song you sing enthusiastically at Hosanna makes you feel great. You are a light among lights. But sing that same song of light in the darkening hours of an aging and lonely woman, and it will make her feel great. You will shine in the darkness.
John Stott once observed that when we enter a dark room, we don't blame it for being dark, we turn the light on. Maybe we need to spend a bit less time condemning darkness for being dark and more time shining our lights. But I wouldn't blame you if you felt like a very small flashlight, at best. I know I do. So how do we shine?
Bonnie and I were at the Rembrandt exhibit at a perfect time. Hardly anyone was there. When I walked into the second room of paintings I scanned the four walls and noticed something immediately. Amidst these paintings bearing small splashes of light against vast ambient darkness, there was one painting with way more light than any of the others. It was the face and torso of the resurrected Christ, and John's words came to me, "...the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Robert Fulghum tells a story of one of his school teachers who was asked how he got into teaching. This teacher grew up in an Italian city bombed in World War II. After such a bombing, rummaging through the rubble, this young boy found a broken mirror from a motorcycle. He filed down the edges and this mirror became a great toy. Eventually, his favorite pastime was reflecting light into hard-to-reach, dark places. And that's what teaching was to him.
Our light probably isn't much more than a flicker, but we can do more as a mirror than as a flashlight. We can reflect a great light into those hard-to-reach, dark places. John called Jesus the light, probably because Jesus said, "I am the light. I am the light of the world." To the widows, to the homeless, to the AIDS victims, to the lonely, to the poor, to the sick, to the grieving, and to the lost, we can reflect the light of the resurrected Christ. Ultimately, the God of Jacob will break the bow, shatter the spear, burn the shields and make wars to cease to the ends of the earth. But for now, "Let your light so shine." Take it to the darkness. And who knows, maybe you'll be at the Otis Hotel when its halls echo with one strong word... "Mine!" Have a great semester.